Ever since the 1800s, when painters crossed the bay from San Francisco on weekends to capture its waterfront beauty, Sausalito has been an artists’ town. On Labor Day in 1952, a group of artists created the Festival at Shell Beach, forerunner of today’s Sausalito Art Festival. As the festival grew, the community built Marinship Park as the event’s home.
For the past nine years, Joseph Lillis has been at the helm of what many now call the finest art festival in America. A third- generation native New Yorker, Lillis spent his high school years in Napa at time when tractors outnumbered Land Rovers and “school didn’t start until the prune crop was tended to,” he recalls. Yet he traces his love for the arts back to that time—specifically the evening of December 2, 1967:
“After enduring a Napa High school rendition of Midsummer Night’s Dream, I attended the opening night party with the cast and crew. As an only child, I looked around the room and was awed by the support and sense of community.” Lillis decided he belonged with creative people who parlay their passions into vocations, and “I haven’t looked back.”
His circuitous route to the Bay Area attests to that adventurous spirit. After high school, he dabbled in acting, doing summer stock in Eugene, Oregon; studied community theater at University of the Pacific in Stockton; and wound up in New York producing plays. After producing more than a dozen Off Broadway shows, he got his shot “on” Broadway when he produced The Coolest Cat in Town. “Unfortunately,” says Lillis, “it was a musical version of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ featuring an Elvis-like character who wakes up in the age of disco.”
The show lasted five performances, and Lillis dropped the curtain on his theater career. He opened a cabaret on Times Square and scribbled out a Cole Porter revue called Some Like It Cold that he hoped would fill the stage on off nights. Surprisingly, the show ran for seven years in 150 cities and eventually brought him back to the Bay Area, where he bought a home in Sausalito and settled into San Francisco’s theater scene.
In 1999, Lillis got a call from Mike Stone of the Sausalito Art Festival Foundation board, asking him to interview for the job of festival executive director. Though it means he’s farther off Broadway than ever, he’s now producing an annual smash. This year it all starts Friday, August 31, with a black-tie affair where guests can mingle with artists; over the next three days, 40,000 people will attend the festival, with Lillis playing host in its midst. We caught up with him in Marin to talk about how it all works.
Who owns the Sausalito Art Festival? It’s had many producers over its 55-year history. For decades, the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce has owned the festival. Since 2000, the nonprofit Sausalito Art Festival Foundation has licensed the festival from the chamber. The foundation has negotiated a purchase of the festival starting with the 2008 show.
How is the city of Sausalito involved? Former mayor Robin Sweeny has chaired the “Mayor’s Blue-Ribbon Select Garbage Committee,” which picks up garbage, since she was on the city council. She continues to gather current and former members of the council (as well as other Marin mayors and politicians) as the core of a very effective recycling program.
Benefits to the city include sales tax (both at the festival and the boost in sales citywide), business license fees and parking income.
Why Marinship Park? Having been built from a junkyard by the Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club and the Rotary Club, the Marinship Park has been a great asset to the festival. It provides us hundreds of feet of waterfront exposure and a terrific pier, providing a great promenade and the opportunity to bring the Blue & Gold ferries right to the festival.
How are the artists selected? We get around 1,200 applications a year for 270 spots. Besides a few dozen spaces we reserve for award winners from the previous year and jury members, the bulk of the exhibitors are chosen by a peer jury using a point system and blind submissions. Each Labor Day, the artists elect the jurors who choose the artists for the next year. There are 14 categories: 2-D mixed media, 3-D mixed media, ceramics, drawing, fiber, functional art, glass, jewelry, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, watercolor and woodwork. The jurors view 6,000 slides over the first weekend in April. To ensure a good home team showing, we give a one-point advantage to all Sausalito artists.
How many artists from Marin are usually in the show? Because of the jury system, every year is different. This year, it’s about 30. The one thing they have in common is that they are immediately recognizable. You know a Tom Killion when you see it. His style is so unique it is instantly memorable. Tom Gehrig has so many elements in his dreamlike visions that you just have to linger with them. Many of Mark Keller’s paintings involve music and you can almost listen to them.
Sometimes the distinguishing factor is an original technique like Debra Maddox’s photo-paintings or the use of color, as with the work of Michael Leu’s. Even in the fiber category, Arlene Wohl’s work involves such distinctive weaving, and Juline Beier’s painted silks are as identifiable as a Picasso.
Would you recommend participation in the Sausalito Art Festival to new artists? If the work is wonderful and the artist is prolific, yes. The challenge is to have enough inventory and present a professional image. Our booth fees can be quadruple of what other shows charge (starting at $950), but our average sales are 10 times those of other events. The other costs are often far greater. Food, lodging, and especially transportation get more expensive every year. Some of our regulars from the East Coast didn’t apply because of the cost of gas. But great sales easily compensate—that’s why artists come here from Australia, Argentina and Turkey. An attractive booth and an air of friendly confidence will bring buyers in to see the work. If the art speaks to the collector, experience is irrelevant.
Why do you do this? While the event itself is the highlight of my year, I also love playing Santa Claus. All proceeds from the festival go to Sausalito charities. By the end of the year, we have to give all the money away. Whether it’s the Sausalito Woman’s Club scholarship fund or the Sausalito Dog Park, it’s a great reason to stick with a job.
In addition, a dozen or more local nonprofits get most of their yearly income from operating food booths, and the Rotary Club, responsible for all the parking lots, has earned seed money to fund two senior housing projects. Our biggest contribution has been to Sausalito schools. In the last few years we have been able to donate over $100,000 to underwrite arts programs.
How many more Labor Day Weekends do you see yourself driving the grounds in your official golf cart? It’s funny: after my first show, at a celebration on Monday night as the artists were still packing up, Mike Stone said to me, “You’re the best executive director ever! What would keep you another five years?”
Honestly, the only thing that came to mind was, “Shoot me!”
My passion for this event has only grown. We bought a house two blocks from the festival grounds. We have 28 years left on the mortgage. Is that a good enough answer?
What is your favorite part of the festival? Being the first to arrive before dawn and watch the sunrise over the bay. Sitting on my golf cart, sipping my coffee and surveying our temporary Disneyland is just the best.
What do you do during the second week of September? There is no rest for the weary. I’m back at the site at dawn on Tuesday morning to inspect the progress of dismantling the weekend wonderland. It takes a couple of weeks to put everything “back in the box” and work with Bank of the West to make sure all the income is properly accounted for. My last duty before taking a break is a big volunteer appreciation party. Then I rush to the airport to catch a cruise ship to somewhere I’ve never been.
Daily tickets for the festival are $20, with discounts for seniors and children; a weekend pass for three days is $30. Opening-night gala tickets start at $175. For more information, go to sausalitoartfestival.org.
This Year's Artists
From Sausalito: Chris Adessa, Cornelia Goldsmith, Mark Keller, E. Loren Soderberg, John Gunther Musaus, George Sumner, Joanne Fox, Juline Beier, and Kay Carlson.
Also from Marin: Marne Jaye, Heidi Hornberger, Debra Maddox, Arlene Wohl, Maureen Ellis, and Michael Leu.
First-place winners returning are Sausalito’s Tom Gehrig (2-D mixed media), Cathy Rose from New Orleans (3-D mixed media), Leslie Thomas of Oakview, California (ceramics), Sue Ogilvie of Port Hadlock, Washington (drawing), Prince Duncan-Williams of Henderson, Nevada (fiber), Stephen V. O’Meara of Scottsdale, Arizona (functional art), Ruben Fasani of Buenos Aires, Argentina (glass), Marya Dabrowski of Pawtucket, Rhode Island (jewelry), Dan Fogel of Tempe, Arizona (painting), San Franciscan Chris Honeysett (photography), Tom Killion of Point Reyes Station (printmaking), Theodore Gall of Ojai, California (sculpture), and M. Dale Chase of Penn Valley, California (woodwork).
International artists returning include Istvan and Eniko Vago from Hungary (2-D mixed media), Hossein Fallahi from Iran (painting), Carol S. Farrow from the UK (watercolor), Jean-Francois Brahin from France (painting), Gultan Imamoglu from Turkey and Israeli Yoram Gal (watercolor).